Excellent direction and inspired design make Secret House’s production of Cymbeline a surprisingly entertaining night out.
One of Shakespeare’s least-known works, Cymbeline reads like a bingo card of the Bard’s favourite devices: gruesome murder, adventures in the woods, cross-dressing, a confused King, banishment, star-crossed lovers and war. Tick, tick, tick, Bingo! At nearly 4,000 lines, Cymbeline is also one of Shakespeare’s longest plays. But thanks to an excellent adaptation by Director Sean O’Riordan this production runs just over 2 hours.
We join the action as Cymbeline, the King of Britain, imprisons his only daughter, Imogen, for secretly marrying low-born Posthumus, whom he subsequently banishes. At his side, the Queen layers plot upon plot to take her husband’s throne and supplant there her son, Cloten. In banishment, Posthumus swears to his love’s chastity and virtue, which leads villainous Iacamo (a Roman soldier) to attempt to prove Imogen unfaithful. A wager is laid, thus setting in motion a series of events that play out all too familiarly – mistaken virtue, revenge, fake deaths, long-lost royal family members, etc, etc, etc.
There is some debate in scholarly circles as to whether Cymbeline is a tragedy or a comedy. Certainly, O’Riordan has delivered both in equal measure, bringing forward moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity set against bloody plots and murder. A black comedy is perhaps the most apt label, and O’Riordan handles this genre brilliantly.
O’Riordan is clearly familiar with the Depot Theatre stage, utilising its confines and unique layout to his advantage to draw the audience deeper into the action. The entire company remains onstage throughout the play, casually observing the action. They also serve as useful reference points for the audience, with the actors playing the scene helpfully pointing out the character to whom their current speeches refer.
Perhaps O’Riordan’s most inspired directional choice was employing Angelika Nieweglowski to design the sets and costumes. The costumes are lavish and multi-layered, made entirely of reclaimed and repurposed materials. They are best described as a collage, taking their cues from the period and modern fashion. They are also practical, given most of the cast plays dual roles, in that they can be quickly shrugged off or turned around to represent a new character.
Also created from reused materials, Nieweglowski’s set is ingenious. Pallet racking affixed to the back walls adds dimension, which is further heightened by lights that have been set behind the wood. At the rear of the stage stands a high platform, ideal for kingly proclamations. Scene changes (and there are many) are achieved quickly and cleverly by moving loose pallets about the stage, to form banquet tables, palace floors and even the entrance to a cave. The actors are well practised in their movements, and bring an energy and purpose to the resets that keep the play moving forward swiftly.
The set is also very well lit, thanks to designer Alex Holver. There are subtle changes in which the focus shrinks to accompany plotting monologues, and gentle dappling effects to represent the forest and mountains. The smoke machine is particularly effective in the battle scenes, and the festoon lighting that denotes the bar where exiled Posthumus drowns his sorrows is a nice surprise.
Adding to the drama is an orchestral soundtrack reminiscent of Game of Thrones, with the odd modern reference thrown in. On the subject to music, it’s nice to see that O’Riordan has not done away with the songs that frequent Shakespeare’s plays (but are all too often left out of present-day productions). In fact, a vocal serenade in the first act during, which one of the choristers breaks into beatboxing, gives us one of the funniest moments in the show.
The largely young cast is evenly balanced, and all deliver the complex language with confidence. Standouts include Celia Kelly as the Queen, whose experience shows in her stage presence and elocution. Dave Kirkham gives a sensitive, multi-dimensional performance as Belarius, and Tom Coyne, as the foolish Prince Cloten, displays a good sense of comic timing.
Secret House and O’Riordan have demonstrated they know what it takes to put on a convincing, entertaining Shakespearean event. This production wrangles what is often viewed as a convoluted, overladen play into a surprisingly amusing and compelling night of theatre.
Cymbeline is running until 15th October at the Depot Theatre in Marrickville. For tickets, go here.
The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 7th October.